There is evidence that some humans lived on Whidbey Island perhaps 8,000 years ago. Certainly, there were significant villages of Snohomish, Suquamish, Skagit and Swinomish Indians or their ancestors by 1500. From 1500 to 1640, hundreds of European explorers, especially those Portuguese and Spanish navigators influenced by Prince Henry’s school of navigation in Lisbon, circumnavigated the globe and sailed southern and northern waters with confidence.
In 1500 the Portuguese navigator Gaspar Cortereal discovered Labrador and the entrance to Hudson Bay. Spanish and Portuguese mariners made parallel discoveries in the Pacific: Balboa in 1513, followed by Cortez, Cabrillo, and Ferrelo. Martin Frobisher in the 1550’s explored widely the northern coasts of present-day Canada. In 1610, a Dutch navigator sailing for England, Henry Hudson, explored Hudson Bay far to the west seeking the theoretical “Northwest Passage” believed to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific across North America, analogous to what Ferdinand Magellan found in 1520 at the ‘bottom’ of South America where the Atlantic Ocean joined the Pacific.
Sir Francis Drake in 1579 sailed the outer coast of much of the “Oregon Territory” in his quest for fame. To promote trade and find a ‘Northwest Passage’ route across North America (and solidify British interests in these resource-rich lands), the Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in London, in 1668.
Parallel exploration took place on the Pacific side of the continent. The “Spanish” sailor, who called himself Juan de Fuca (who was actually a Greek-born, Apostolus Valerianos), in 1592, sailed into what we now call Puget Sound. Others followed. In 1774, Juan Jose Perez Hernandez, in 1775, Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Britain’s James Cook explored Vancouver Island in 1778, later Alferez Quimper and Francisco Eliza, and others, provided names for places familiar to many in Puget Sound today. See also Whidbey Island’s History Part 1.
Captain Lieutenant Salvado (or Salvador?) Fidalgo from his 1592 voyage was to have his name given to the island then thought to include Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. In 1787 British Captain John Barclay began the exploration of Puget Sound and the waters to the north that today lie in Canada. This voyage led the British government to fund an exploration and mapping expedition in 1791, of two ships under Captain George Vancouver. Vancouver on HMS Discovery in company with HMS Chatham in escort sailed into ‘Puget Sound’ and began exploration and mapping of the Sound. (The magnificent “model” of HMS Discovery shown here was researched and made for Herbert Weissblum, a Whidbey Island resident, and is in his collection).
In June 1792, Discovery entered ‘Penn’s Cove’ and “was received by 600 natives” curious to meet these “white men”. Reportedly, Vancouver, Captain Joseph Whidbey, Pilot Peter Puget and the other expedition leaders were well received all over the Sound. This seems historically accurate, apparently because the ‘whites’ appeared to be a powerful potential ally against the dreaded war-like Haida, Kwakiutl, and Nootka Indians from Prince George’s Sound and the Queen Charlotte Islands. These aggressive “Northmen” were slave owners and practiced what our local tribes considered “barbaric” human sacrifices on their Puget Sound captives.
Serious American interest in the Pacific Northwest followed the overland journey of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806) to find the western boundary of what President Thomas Jefferson had purchased from France as the “Louisiana Territory” in 1803. It is clear too, that Jefferson thought of it in the United States’ best interest to explore and prepare for land claims in the northwest. The western limits of the purchase were described as the “founding waters” (headwaters) of the Mississippi/Missouri River system. See also this post: Life in the Rain Shadow.
These headwaters can be found in several western states and British Columbia including present-day Washington and Idaho. Lewis and Clark at the Continental Divide crossed and then followed the westward-flowing rivers that formed the Snake and Columbia Rivers. In 1805 they build their winter fortress on the “Oregon” side of the Columbia, at Astoria. That is why the territory formed, as the Oregon Territory was not named the ‘Washington’ Territory.
Settlers were encouraged to colonize the Great Northwest as U.S. Army engineers helped lay out the Oregon Trail. From 1836-1841 the United States funded a land/sea expedition to further explore the Northwest and to assert American claims against British expansion. This “Wilkes Expedition” was led by an intrepid Naval Lieutenant, Charles Wilkes. In 1841, on his flagship USS Vincennes, Wilkes landed at the western end of Penn Cove and the expedition’s historical notes describe the large permanent Skagit Indian village of “Pra’tle” and its “longhouses” lining half a mile of beach in front of what is called today “Kennedy’s Lagoon”.
Whidbey Island’s first “permanent whites” appeared in 1833. HBC records suggest that three Hudson’s Bay Company employees were sent to Whidbey from the HBC post near Dupont, in present-day Thurston County, to erect a new trading post. There is ambiguity in the record as to whether their post, between Scatchet Head and the Possession Point shoreline, on South Whidbey, was ever completed. The next significant European influence followed the arrival of Father Francis Blanchett in 1840 who founded a Catholic Mission at Penn Cove. Blanchett later left Whidbey to convert Indians near present-day Mount Vernon.
Technically, Whidbey and the Northwest only became part of the U. S. the following year, 1846, when Congress ratified the Treaty of Oregon Act, ending decades of “joint occupancy” of the Northwest by Britain and the U. S. The Treaty recognized British sovereignty north of the 49th parallel and American claims to settlement north and south of the Columbia River as discovered and explored by Robert Gray, an American fur trader. Two years later, the Oregon Territory Act was signed into law, asserting U. S. claims over what is today Oregon, Washington, the ‘Panhandle’ of northern Idaho and western Montana.
On South Whidbey, in 1850, Robert Bailey from Virginia arrived at the HBC camp near Scatchet Head on ‘Bailey Bay’ flats, where there was also an Indian village called “Dig’wash”. Bailey apparently began the predecessor of “The Bailey Corner Store” store sometime around 1857. The shellfish midden remains of “Dig’wash” can still be seen today at Cultus Bay. Three years later the Scatchet Head Fisheries began a very large salmon packing enterprise of shipping preserved, salted salmon from the island to San Francisco, San Diego, Monterey and New York. Bonemeal was manufactured as a by-product. Bailey gave testament in 1878 that more than 100 workers were once employed at Scatchet Head. When Seattle was later developed it is said that on a warm day, when the wind was blowing in the right direction, one could smell Whidbey Island!
The “original” Whidbey Island colonizer was Thomas Glasgow. In 1848, two years before the Oregon Land Act, Glasgow arrived on Whidbey, claiming 160 acres of Ebey Prairie; property now including the parking and display area of the Ebey National Historic Reserve. Glasgow was harassed by a group of “Northmen” that autumn and left the island – abandoning his ‘claim’. In the spring of 1850, Congress enabled the Oregon Land Bill, permitting the claim of 640 acres, if married, 320 if unmarried, in what was now the Oregon Territory.
A few months after the Bill’s passage, Issac Ebey took over Glasgow’s claimed area, becoming the most noted of our early settlers; more noted still when he was murdered by Indians in 1857. Ebey built his house, known locally as “The Cabins”, near the National Historic Reserve. The following year Ebey’s father, Jacob Ebey and his wife arrived at Ebey Landing and built the family home known as “The Ferry House”, which later became an informal “inn” for visitors arriving on the west side of the island.
The ferry house has remained almost untouched by time, alone in a field on the south side of Ebey Road. At the same time Ebey arrived on Whidbey, Benjamin Barstow arrived, settling at the western end of Penn Cove and opening a general store/trading post at ‘Barstow’s Point”, near today’s Captain Whidbey Inn. Except for lumber mills, this was the first business in the Northwestern United States, north of Ft. Nisqually and west of the Cascade Mountains.
We do not know who started the name Coveland, however, this, the first town in Puget Sound, known for its tide flats treasures, is referred to by name in 1851. That year, Dr. Robert Lansdale arrived. In addition to being the first American physician in the Pacific Northwest, he became the first U. S. Postmaster north of the Columbia River. A courthouse was built that stands to this day on Madrona Drive, overlooking the lagoon and Penn Cove. Issac Ebey became the first sitting judge north of Astoria. Ebey was also Collector of Customs and representative to the Territorial Legislature when Island County was created, with Coveland as its “seat”.
The original Thurston County included the entire Pacific Northwest, north of Chehalis (then called Chickeeles), from the Cascades to the 49th parallel. By 1853 it is said that Coveland was a village of 400 Skagit Indians and eight white families. The following year, Samuel Libbey arrived and settled at Coveland, that had by this time become the titular “capital” of the Pacific Northwest. Libbey and his family lived in a small house by Kennedy’s Lagoon and in 1854 moved “down the beach” to a house built by Barstow the year before. This home on Madrona Drive is the best candidate for the oldest home on Whidbey Island still at its original location.
The following year, 1854, because of the land claims of Thomas Coupe and others further east along Penn Cove, Coveland reached its building limits and thereafter expanded “around the corner” on the north side of Penn Cove. Later, in 1888 the name of the town was changed from Coveland to San de Fuca. The original town and its wonderful history remain in two buildings on Madrona. A new village, today’s Coupeville, began to attract settlers.
Thomas Coupe built the first frame house on Whidbey Island on what is now Front Street, just east of the intersection of Main. This home although somewhat altered in remodeling over the years remains largely as original in 1854. While the New England sea captains were arriving in Puget Sound, Ebey as the sole Oregon Territory representative presided over the formation of Island County and Whidbey and the huge area that was to become in 1889 the State of Washington. The island’s history warrants indeed a unique place in U. S. history.
Salvado Fidalgo in 1592 named the island, “Paradiso”. Today it’s called Whidbey Island, but its still Paradise.